Maureen Egan: 100 Miles Before Breakfast - My Mother’s Legacy Trip

Posted:  Monday, April 14, 2014 - 8:30am

I have my mother to thank for the highlight of my childhood — a five-week, cross-country camping trip our family took in the summer of 1969, the year I turned 8. After seeing a neighbor's slideshow of a similar trip, my mom began her multi-year campaign to convince her book-loving, school administrator husband to devote his entire summer vacation to driving a car and tent trailer — packed with six kids and camping gear — from the south shore of Boston to the south coast of California and back, for a total of just under 7,000 miles.

Before she married at 29, my mother's intrepid spirit had led her hiking up Mount Katahdin in Maine; sidestepping up and skiing down Tuckerman's Ravine on Mount Washington; and road-tripping with friends from Boston to Aspen to experience the thrill of skiing in powder. The idea of hauling a 6-, 8-, 10-, 11-,12- and 13-year-old (five of them wiry boys) across our great country, motivated rather than daunted her.

She plied my dad to build a wooden roof carrier and a custom-designed camp kitchen with cubbies and drawers that held all the cooking items she would need to feed her family of eight during the trip. (We ate out less than a handful of times during the five weeks.) She pinched pennies for two years from dad's meager private-school paychecks to fund it all, including a trip to Disneyland in California. Gas was only 35 cents a gallon, but it still took every scrap of her clever frugality to manage the budget.

Early on in the trip, mom figured out that we would never achieve her ambitious itinerary if we stayed at the pace we were keeping. (Picture six scrappy kids playing hide and seek in the woods when it was time to break camp.)

"Starting tomorrow, it's 100 miles before breakfast," she declared in her don't-mess-with-me voice.

"What does that mean?," we all asked.

"That means we break camp like soldiers, get on the road by 7 a.m., and drive two hours or 100 miles before we stop for breakfast at a rest area," she said.

"Mommmmm....noooooo!," came our chorus of groans.

"That's right, NO more lollygagging around. We've got an entire country to see and we'll never make it at this pace. Walter, tell them we mean business," she said.

"Your mother is right, children," my dad said, clearing his throat. "Tomorrow is a new dawn, and a new plan."

My mother purchased a Golden Eagle card from the U.S. Government for $7, which would gain us entry (including camping privileges) into any National Park in the country. She was not about to waste any of her investment, and her adventurous legs knew no bounds as she led us up the Rocky Mountains in sneakers, down Bryce Canyon on horseback, into the Pueblo dwellings like hunchbacks and along the precipitous paths overlooking the mile-deep Grand Canyon on sturdy legs. It was mom who doled out ice chips in our oven-on-wheels as we crossed the Mohave dessert, where I think we almost ran out of gas.

Mom was the only one able to re-pack the tent trailer with all our gear at the end of each stay. It was she who figured out that a tall, plastic, covered pail, when filled with water, clothes and powdered laundry detergent, could squeeze into the back of the station wagon and slosh all day, leaving just a quick rinsing and hanging once camp was made to produce clean laundry. Mom even kept a separate suitcase, packed with one clean outfit for each person, to ensure that her brood would arrive at church each Sunday — in Denver or Las Vegas or Yosemite — dressed appropriately. Let it be known that Marie Egan's family never missed Mass.

We spent two of the five weeks near Los Angeles, camping at Dohaney Beach, close to mom's brother and his family — six kids similar in ages to our own. We got to know our groovy California cousins and the waves of the Pacific, and that was pretty great, but the road was calling and my mother wanted us to taste it all — the bark-covered towers of the Sequoias, the fearless bears at Yellowstone, the mighty lakes and mountains of the Grand Tetons. In all, we made it to 15 states and 10 national parks. We almost lost 10-year-old Joe, who climbed over the fence at the Grand Canyon, and 13-year old Jerome, who got tired of pit toilets and wanted to hop the bus back home—but my mother would have none of it. She pulled us through with her spunk and her spark, and only a few boxes of band-aids.

I had hoped to take my two kids on a similar, life-changing trip, but every time I pictured it, I got totally overwhelmed. I didn't have the iron will and selfless gumption to forge such a heroic odyssey. Mom was one of a select few who could pull off that legacy trip. My brother. Leo. said it best at the end of his eulogy to her last October, eyes moistened with the adoration we all shared, "Love you mom...If anyone deserves a rest, it's you."

Maureen Egan lives in Rockport, where she writes, paints and performs various other jobs. She is currently at work on a book of essays and paintings about her experience with breast cancer in 2012. She still loves to camp, but only in her memory.

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Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at Cheryl Durbas is a freelance personal assistant in the Midcoast area. She can be reached at